MY SIMILARITIES WITH ANCIENT MARINERS
I was rereading Homer's Odyssey for a college class recently. I've been intrigued since my college days a half century ago by the trials and misfortunes of Odysseus (Ολυσσενς). Interestingly, his name means in Greek a giver or receiver of pain.
Troy fell a decade before, and Homer's tale is about Odysseus' attempts to go home again, which will take him many years of struggling and pain-hence his name, Odysseus. Several millennia later, Thomas Wolfe warned us again that You Can't Go Home Again. There I sat musing over the difficulty of Odysseus' attempt at going home again.
Then, like a muse's intervention, it dawned on me how Odysseus and I share in the plight of pain and struggling. In my recent life, I too have dealt with pain. I have danced close to death twice. I fell off a ladder on May 18, 2008. Ironically, that summer, my wife, Ann, and I were going to Greece for a month of study and travel. Instead, I spent three weeks in ICU and don't recall a moment due to a subdural hematoma. A couple of months prior to that accident, I had a da Vinci prostatectomy. Fortunately, both surgeries were successful, and I have returned to my normal life.
I have also had job disappointments over the last decade, but as with the surgeries, those disappointments actually made me a better professor and person. While I lived through all my personal setbacks, I went back to life "a sadder and a wiser man", and I "rose the morrow morn" much like the ancient Greek mariner, Odysseus, and the more modern mariner of Samuel Coleridge's epic poem, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.
There I was reading Homer's Odyssey. I quickly opened my high school English literature book and reread and reflecting upon Coleridge's The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. As I sailed off in an Odysseus-like emotional journey, I knew full-well of the brevity of life and the time-consuming effort it takes to go home again.
Easter was a couple of weeks away, and I was planning for the kids to come over to the house for dinner and games after dinner. I had to make a list of things that I needed to get for dinner. As I pondered, I remembered what my mother use to have for dinner back in Merchantville, NJ when I was in elementary school. Then my remembering journey back to my home and to those people still alive in my hometown. Surely, Odysseus also remembered what life was like back in Ithaca while he attempted to go back home again.
I remembered a cousin of mine, Brooks Oakford, who owns a candy store called Aunt Charlotte's, which has been in business for nearly a century. When I was very young, around 10-years old, Brooks (we called him, Bud) invited me to work at the store during the busiest times of the year: Christmas and Easter. My candy-making specialty at that age was placing pretzels on a conveyor belt that would coat them with chocolate. I considered that task both a privilege and fun job. However, on my work breaks, I would float around his production department and watch others make the various candies and artistically decorate many of them.
Bud had amazing creativity. He designed beautiful decorations on all sorts of Aunt Charlotte's many candy selections. Bud use to make large Easter eggs out of a coconut concoction insides, which then were coated with chocolate. He would then hand-decorate the eggs with icing that she applied by the use of pastry tube filled with various colors made from sugar. I loved those Easter eggs as much for the beautiful looks as for the lovely taste.
As I was sitting reminiscing about those happy days of sheer joy nearly 60-years ago, I found myself calling Aunt Chocolate's. I asked to speak with one of Brooks' girls, who run the store now. They transferred me to Randy who I haven't seen for several decades. After an hour of reminiscing, I finally got around to placing an order of one of the famous Easter eggs. A couple days later, UPS rang the door with my long-remembered treasured Easter egg. Within a couple of days, the egg was consumed amid fond childhood memories of being back home in Merchantville.
While spacing out my sugary treat as long as I could, I realized that I had to go back home again. My memories of Merchantville are filled with four main players who made me who I am today in addition to my parents: my Grandmother Oakford, my Aunt Dot, Bud and Bunny. My parents have died...my mother when she was 51 with the pain and agony of lupus and my father when he was 68 from heart disease. Both suffered for years with their illnesses prior to their deaths. Generally speaking, our time in Merchantville was devoid of much of that suffering. However, my dad was transferred to Pittsburgh, PA as major step up the corporate ladder at an insurance company. That timeframe was really the beginning of the end of the healthy and happy days for the Campbell clan.
After nearly two decades of severe suffering my mother died. My dad then remarried a gal by the name of Retta. As they were getting their new lives together as husband and wife, my dad wrote to my brothers and me a letter about what he called his toes-up file. We were to request things that we grew up with that we would get either now or after he died...sometime in the future. As any first-born, I did as I was instructed and returned my request list. My list included a tulip pitcher used for iced tea back in Merchantville. There was a drop-leaf kitchen table from our house in Merchantville. I also requested his ruby and gold ring that was my mother's gift to him when he returned from Imo Jima and Saipan to Merchantville at the end of WWII. There was a mahogany wooden bench which was by my Grandmother and Grandfather Oakford's fireplace in Merchantville. There was my grandfather's wardrobe armoire, which was in their Merchantville bedroom. I also asked for my great grandparent's silver tea set also from Merchantville. I also requested my parent's silver, china, and goblets for formal dinners along with the dining room furniture that they had in Merchantville. And finally, I asked for my parent's bedroom furniture. All these gifts I received very quickly except for the silver, china, and the bedroom furniture, which is still being used by Retta.
My brothers didn't ask for anything that I can recall. While they had seen and lived with nearly all my requested items, those items from the Merchantville days didn't bring back any hauntingly happy memories to them as they did for me. That is understandable; they were very young when we moved from Merchantville. In addition, they didn't spend much happy time around those items as I had prior to the time that we moved to Pittsburgh.
Another critically important person to my development was my Grandmother Oakford, who outlived my mother by a several decades. I have nothing but happy memories of her; she was always pleasant, supportive, and loving. I would cuddle up to her on the couch, she would scratch my back, or we would just sit and talk about days gone by on the farm in Oxford, PA.
The same was true of my Aunt Dot who was my grandmother's last-born and my mother's sister. She was closer to my age-about 20-years older. That proximity allowed for a more equalitarian relationship with her even when I was hardly a teenager. There weren't as many years separating us and our lives. While she was about a generation older, she was close enough to me in thoughts and ideas. She was for me a big sister, and I dearly loved her. I spent many years visiting her with my parents and brothers and as time went by, I would take my family on visit to her. However, she got cancer and was dying. I went to see her for the last time in a hospital in Indianapolis. We said our good-byes and while she was dying of cancer, I was dying emotionally.
As I was leaving the hospital, I accidently ran into Carol, her daughter, who was coming to see her mother. Carol comforted me with the impending death of her mother and my aunt. My crying in her arms that very sad a day was an embarrassment although totally out of my emotional control.
The only two other mainstays of my early years, Bud and Bunny, are still alive...both of which will be seen soon-within a couple of weeks. I look forward to seeing them both and their children. Bud and Bunny are the only two remaining family that have been supportive of me and who I can thank when neither is on their deathbed. Bud was the family's happy and up-beat funny man. He was either always laughing or he was smiling waiting to laugh. I'm sure that he has had some bad days, but I never saw one and surely few others have either outside his immediate family. I liked being around someone who laughed and smiled most of the time.
What I don't think that I fully appreciated at the time was his trusting me to do some work for him. I certainly appreciated being around him at the candy store, but I didn't really appreciate the message that he was sending me about trusting me to do that most young kids wouldn't mature enough to do at that young age. However, his encouragement to allow me to work for him registered but not registering fully until much later in my life. Nevertheless, working at Bud's store dwarfed all else in my life at that time. To go to the candy story was an unmatched treat especially for someone who was around 10-years old.
Bud's message wasn't duplicated until I was a senior in college, and Louie Palmer hired me as his teaching assistant for a required art history class called The Arts, which was a 10-hour required class divided into 5-hours each semester. I taught students my age as an undergraduate in several subsections per week, wrote, and graded both midterms and finals during both semesters.
I don't know why Bud allowed me to help him at the candy store, but it did have a profound effect upon me in my life in many of the same ways working for Louie also did. I'm glad that I will be able to address a long overdue thank you to him.
As for Bunny, she gave me the quiet assurance of her love and respect for me as well as her children, relatives, and the young and old that she knew. She wasn't the outgoing person that Bud was, but her message to me and all the others was that we were loved. Period. I didn't have to do anything for that love; I was just loved, and I knew it. I don't know whether she understood her affect upon me either. Nevertheless, she was one of the most affirming persons that I have known. Bud, Bunny, Aunt Dot, and Grandmother Oakford all shared that same message... you are loved. You don't have to do anything. You were simply loved. That is an amazing memory that I have of those years back in Merchantville.
Therefore, I am very much like Odysseus. I am going home not to Ithaca but to Merchantville. While it took Odysseus and me about the same amount of time finally to return home, we will have both gone home again-after many years of being away.
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